Dear Millennial Generation,
I recently ran across a piece titled, "An Open Letter to the Church from My Generation," written by a college student in South Dakota. Dannika Nash, the writer of the letter, says she speaks for your entire generation in rejecting the traditional church because of its stance toward homosexuality. Perhaps her claim is correct, but for some reason I doubt it. It just seems unlikely that one young woman from South Dakota represents the views of 80 million people.
Nonetheless, Ms. Nash clearly struck a nerve. More than 10,000 people shared her letter on Facebook and Twitter. At the very least, she represents a significant minority of your generation. Many of you are tired of the ongoing culture war over homosexuality. You have friends in pain, people who feel rejected by the Church (and consequently by God), and you want to ease their suffering. You're tired of voices on both sides of the issue shouting at one another, yet making little progress in truly understanding one another.
I wonder if you would be surprised to find that many evangelical pastors and leaders are similarly dismayed by the anger and hostility surrounding this issue? Most of us aren't eager to go to war over moral, political, or cultural issues, when our primary purpose is to make disciples of Jesus.
Ms. Nash would certainly classify my church and its pastors as deeply conservative. We hold traditional views when it comes to the Bible, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and yes, on issues of marriage and sexuality. When we select leaders, we expect them to act in keeping with biblical standards of integrity in every area of their lives, including the sexual area. We occasionally preach to our own congregation about homosexuality and other issues of sexual morality, because we recognize that sexual sin is a huge stumbling block for those trying to follow Christ.
However, our church exists to make disciples of Jesus, not to make people polite, nice, good, or socially acceptable. Most of the evangelicals I know would agree with that statement. The core of our message is that Jesus died and rose again to save sinners, and we are all sinners. Sin is an equal opportunity killer, and grace is an equal opportunity savior.
For that reason, it troubles me that the first question Millennials (and others) often ask me about my church is how we feel about homosexuality or gay marriage. I'm certainly not a celebrity pastor, but reporters occasionally call us for quotes. Without fail, they want to talk about homosexuality -- do we hate homosexuals, do we really think the Bible is against them, how often do we preach sermons on the topic, etc. I've decided I simply can't answer those questions apart from a broader discussion about Jesus and the gospel. I do not want to participate in an argument about morality without a discussion of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It's unproductive at best, and dangerous at worst. Usually that means the reporter in question finds somebody else to provide a quote, somebody who will simply condemn homosexuals in stark terms without referencing the gospel. If you've ever wondered why the Christians quoted in the media seem to be of the strident and angry variety, that's why.
I don't represent all evangelicals, or all traditional pastors, or "all" of any group. However, I know that my church and many others want the chance to talk to your generation about Jesus. Yes, we'll talk to you about homosexuality if you insist, but we'd much rather talk about Jesus first. We would rather talk about sexual morality in the context of discipleship, for those who are already committed to Jesus and His church.
If you are a Millennial who finds yourself suspicious of the traditional church, we would like to know you and to talk with you. I wonder if you would be willing to first consider Jesus Himself before asking me about homosexuality? What if knowing Jesus and believing that He freely offers eternal life ends up changing everything for you? In the final analysis, I mostly want you to develop a living and active relationship with God. I trust that once you meet Jesus, His Spirit will begin to work on those areas of your life that seem so impossible to change. Why make a decision at the age of 20 that you must always act, believe, and think just as you do now? Why refuse to entertain the possibility that a close encounter with God might dramatically alter your plans, your activities, and your perception of who you are?
If you trust Jesus, you'll find that becoming more like Him is a life-long process, one that is simultaneously encouraging, exciting, and difficult. There are peaks and valleys along the way, and there are moments where you would rather not submit to what He's doing in your heart. Every single Christian struggles with doubt and sin. Those who grow deeply with Jesus agree to keep seeking change, even though we sometimes resist the plans of the One transforming us. We don't get to decide what God does in our hearts before He begins the process. If we tell Him that certain areas are off-limits, we'll be sorely disappointed when He starts tinkering around in those areas.
So here's my question: Would you be willing to consider Jesus apart from your preconceptions? You might think the church is wrong about homosexuality. Your pastor might misunderstand you or struggle to help you. But Jesus fully understands you, and I think His Spirit is most active among His people in the church. You might think that you'll find your own way spiritually, apart from faithful friends in the church, but the Bible and my own experience both suggest that spiritual growth is a team activity.
If you've been hurt at church in the past, I'd like to suggest that you try again. I'm not saying that you should search for a church that endorses everything you do and think -- that's not a church, that's a fan club. Instead, look for a place where the pastors and the people are fiercely committed to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Look for a place where they agree to help you, where they provide accountability and correction in a context of grace. Then dive in and seek help to grow closer to Jesus, even if it hurts at first, and even if you don't agree with everything.
You just might find that Jesus, through the mercy and love of His people, changes everything.
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I used to take it personally when people fell asleep during my sermons. Like many preachers, I spend a large portion of my week preparing, and it's demoralizing to see nodding heads and heavy eyelids. At times, I'm tempted to thump people on the head, or to set up the "cot of shame" at the front of the auditorium. Anybody who drifts off would publicly walk to the cot of shame and sleep in full view of those present. (I would never do this, but the thought has crossed my mind more than once.)
Although the problem might be on my side of the pulpit -- and I certainly strive each week to improve my content and delivery -- my perspective changed a few years ago when I noticed people sleeping while trying to listen to one of the most gifted and exciting preachers I know. The sight was both comforting and horrifying. If people could not stay awake during his message, the problem isn't simply poor preaching.
Most of us struggle at times to listen to sermons, even when they are compelling and well-prepared. Yet few disciplines are more important than hearing and responding to God's Word. The blessing of God begins when we "look intently" into the perfect Law and apply it to our lives (James 1:22-25). We can't do that if we're asleep.
So how can we listen to God's Word more effectively and stay awake on Sunday morning? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Become a reader. Those who regularly read books are in the habit of concentrating on sustained intellectual arguments. When you read, you learn to think in a linear fashion, so a 45-minute exposition of Romans 3 is no longer such a mental strain. If the longest content you read is 140 characters, you will have a hard time paying attention to a sermon, because you are not accustomed to critical thinking.
2. Prepare ahead of time. Ask your pastor to tell you what he will be speaking about for the next four or five weeks. (If he doesn't know, then part of the reason you can't pay attention is because his messages are poorly prepared). Look up the relevant passages on Saturday night. Pray that God will help you understand them. Read them and make observations. Show up prepared with questions, and listen to discern whether your pastor answers them. If he doesn't, talk to him after the message is over. This exercise will help you to truly engage with the sermon.
3. Get some sleep! Particularly for college students, the habit of staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning on Saturday night fatally damages your ability to listen well on Sunday. If you have not slept on Saturday night, you will certainly sleep on Sunday morning. If you find that you cannot go to bed early on Saturday, consider attending an evening service on Sunday. That will allow you to sleep in on Sunday morning and be alert when you arrive at church.
4. Take notes. Bring a pen and some paper. Jot down the pastor's key points. Can you identify the main point of his sermon? How does he develop his argument? What are the stories and illustrations he uses to convey his ideas? Actively writing will often help you to listen.
5. Pray that God will help you understand His Word. I am listing this last, but it should probably be the first item on your list. Understanding the Scripture is a supernatural activity, guided by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). When you wake up on Sunday morning, ask God to speak to you that day through your pastor as He explains God's Word.
I'm curious to hear from you. Do you find it difficult to listen while your pastor preaches? Why or why not? What do you think we pastors can do to help the situation? (Be nice to your pastor in the comments -- please don't throw anybody under the bus).
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I've seen a few articles popping up around the internet lately suggesting that Christians should abandon the institution of the church and just "follow Jesus." For example, the cover of Newsweek on April 9 had a modern-looking drawing of Jesus captioned with the words, "Forget the church. Follow Jesus" (you can find the related article here). I haven't yet seen the movie Blue Like Jazz -- I did read the book years ago -- but it's already generating discussion about the failures of the church and the idea of moving "beyond" church to something better. Proponents of this approach often cite the church's history of violence, hypocrisy, and heresy. The solution, it is argued, is for everybody to approach Jesus individually or in small communities with no formal hierarchy or structure. True spirituality is too individualistic to tie it down to an "institution."
Nobody who has attended church for any significant period of time doubts that churches have problems. They tend to be filled with sinners. I've yet to encounter a perfect church, one free of conflict, pride, self-righteousness, or hypocrisy. Most Christians have become irritated with their church at one time or another, and perhaps have even toyed with the idea of ditching the whole thing altogether.
Yet the problems caused by simply walking away from church would be worse than those present in the church itself.
First, Jesus established the Church (in a universal sense) and He seemed to think it was important (Matthew 16:18).
Second, the first Christians really believed that meeting together to worship God corporately was critical to their spiritual growth (Acts 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:4-25). Christians who stopped "meeting together" faced the very real danger of abandoning the important aspects of their faith.
Finally -- and I think this an important point -- meeting with other Christians reminds us weekly of our own imperfections and need for grace. It is true that churches are filled with sinners, just like the rest of the world. Christians in church, though, have (hopefully) come as sinners looking for grace. In other words, we're sick like everybody else, but we're sick people who know we need the cure. And we need to remind one another of our constant and perpetual dependence on the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We need to remind one another that we're not alone in our sin. We need to remember -- through worship, preaching, and celebrating the Lord's Supper -- that provision has been made for our sin. We do that shoulder to shoulder, face to face, because we just can't do it on our own. I tend to forget what's important, and it doesn't take me all week to do so. So I need you to remind me and to challenge me to refocus. That's what church accomplishes when we approach it appropriately.
What's more, as we recognize our own deficiencies and praise God for His grace, we're empowered through His Spirit to share the Gospel with the world. We have to do that together as well. I don't know the people that you know or have the abilities that you have. And vice versa. The Great Commission is a task that requires community and organization. I think that's one of the key reasons Jesus founded the Church, and one of the reasons that the early Christians thought it was so important.
Be very skeptical anytime somebody suggests simply doing away with a practice that has been going on for thousands of years. Yes, there are things that we need to reconsider and do differently, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes there is a good reason for continuing an old tradition. In this case, it's because it mattered to Jesus. I think that's a good reason why it ought to matter to us as well.
If you go to church regularly, what do you value about it? What do you gain in your walk with Christ by attending and participating in it?
I had a great discussion this week with our college interns and one my fellow pastors on the subject of church. Here's the question: What makes a gathering of Christians a "church" as opposed to a parachurch or a concert or something else entirely?
For example, my town is the home of Breakaway, the largest weekly gathering of Christian college students. They meet to sing worship songs and to hear a message from the Scripture. According to the director (a friend of mine), Breakaway is not a church. But why not? Have you ever thought about what separates a parachurch like Breakaway from a church?
What about a concert by your favorite Christian musician? I've heard a few of them refer to their concerts as "church services." How about a seminary chapel service? Or a student organization on campus?
What characteristics constitute a church? I'm going to make an attempt at listing a few that I think distinguish a church from other gatherings. Some of these will overlap with other organizations and meetings, but I think a church ought to have all of these characteristics:
1. A church is a gathering of Christians. Obvious, yes, but there are some groups calling themselves churches who do not believe in the central tenets of Christianity. For example, a "church" that denies the deity of Christ or the bodily resurrection might be a religious gathering, but it isn't a church in the biblical sense. I realize that many parachurch organizations meet this requirement as well.
2. A church exists to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). This isn't necessarily a distinctive characteristic of churches. Many organizations, like Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), exist for this purpose as well. However, I can't leave it off because a church isn't really a church if it doesn't do the task of discipleship.
3. A church is governed by a local group of elders or leaders to whom the membership is accountable. I realize that there are all sorts of governing structures for churches. Even those who have denominational leadership at a national level also have local leadership for each church. Generally that leadership consists of more than one person and has the authority to discipline or remove members if necessary. This is one area in which many parachurch organizations differ from churches. Especially with campus groups, the adult leadership is either non-existent or located in another city. Other groups are led by an individual, but not by a plurality of leaders. A few have a leadership structure similar to the local church, and in those cases it's not always easy to discern into which category the group belongs.
3. A church regularly practices the ordinances of baptism and communion. "Regularly" could mean every week, once a month, or even less. Baptism serves as the church's initiation rite, a public declaration of faith in Christ and membership in the community. Communion serves as the church's affirmation of the forgiveness of sins provided by the death of Christ. It's a confession of faith that Christian churches have always had in common and a practice in which they have always participated (Acts 2:42).
4. A church does not deliberately restrict itself to one ethnicity, age group, gender, or nationality. Some churches are unintentionally homogenous, while others are homogenous because of sin. Nonetheless, a church is a place where everybody is welcomed into membership on the basis of their belief in Jesus Christ. Nobody is included or excluded solely because of external factors. On the other hand, many parachurch organizations restrict themselves to a particular affinity group: college students, women, men, etc. That's not necessarily bad for the purposes of the parachurch, but it doesn't constitute a church. The diversity of the church ought to be a reflection of God's kingdom (Revelation 5:9-10).
5. A church gathers around the worship of God and the teaching of His Word. Some parachurch organizations do this as well. Much like the Great Commission, though, a church really isn't a church without this, so I had to include it here.
Some of you might disagree with one or more of these characteristics. You might add some, as well, so I'd like to hear your thoughts. What constitutes a "church" in the biblical sense of the word?
Immediately after finishing seminary, I was hired to lead a large and thriving college ministry. The previous college pastor (who is now my senior pastor and boss) was an excellent teacher and leader. Under his leadership, God had allowed the ministry to grow. When I took the job, the college ministry had two Sunday morning services, constituting more than 1000 students.
During my first year, though, attendance dropped. Attrition was especially high in the early service, which met at 9:15 in the morning. I tried everything in my power to diagnose and solve the problems, but I was ultimately unsuccessful. I was preaching week after week to about 50 people in a room designed for 500. About eighteen months after I became the college pastor, we shut down the 9:15 college service. It had effectively died a slow and painful death.
I felt like we had taken a large step backwards, and I felt like a failure. I really hoped and expected to take the ministry to the "next level" (which I equated at the time with a bigger group) and I felt like I had let everybody down.
In hindsight, though, I see how God's hand was active throughout that time. He used those events to shape me and to prepare our college ministry for a new generation of students. Here are a few things I learned from my "failure":
First, I had to reconsider my definition of success. Before our attendance dropped, I would have given you the standard ministry line that "numbers aren't how we measure success." Easy to say when the room is full. Hard to believe when it's empty. My understanding of success truly had to change. Yes, we wanted more people in the room. However, I was forced to define my ministry in terms of faithfulness to Christ's command to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). I worked on building strong relationships with a few dedicated student leaders, and I tried to trust the Lord that He would use the few to reach the many. Even if our Sunday morning numbers never increased again.
Second, I had to recognize that most of my circumstances are outside of my control. Control of my own life is an illusion. I can only make decisions about how to respond to the circumstances God places in my life, but I can't change most of the actual circumstances. In hindsight I know a few of the reasons our services lost momentum, but I still don't understand all of them. And the parts I understand aren't factors I could have changed anyway. I spent way too much time that first year worrying about why people were leaving instead of shepherding the people who were there.
Third, I came to understand that what I do doesn't define who I am. College pastor is my job title. It's not my identity. It's not even my life's purpose. I am first and foremost a child of God, saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. My purpose in life is to know Jesus and to make disciples for His kingdom. I can do that whether I'm a college pastor, an insurance salesman, or a plumber. I think God directed my life into vocational ministry, but if He directs me to another job it won't fundamentally change who I am or what I'm called to do. Experiencing struggle and failure at my job reminded me of that truth.
Finally, I learned that sometimes failure paves the way for something better. I don't mean to say that every financial loss will be replaced with more money, or that every job failure will correspond to some sort of worldly success. But I have learned that failure might be God's way of paving the road for you to fulfill His purposes more effectively. In our case, shutting down that 9:15 service forced us to rethink how we reached students. We created smaller elective classes and reinforced our mid-week small groups. We started a second college service at 6:00 in the evening and drew in a whole different group of students. Over time, the ministry has grown, but more importantly it's structured in a way that better meets the needs of this generation of students. And when I move on from this job I fully expect that the next guy will rearrange things as well. Sometimes something has to die before something new can be born.
I could list more of the lessons I learned during that time, but those are some of the most useful ones. I'm curious: Do you have a story of failure? If so, how has God used it in your life?
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Just last week I ran across an article by the Barna group called, "Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church." The study claims that 59% of young Christians leave church for an extended period of time after age 15. The reasons it gives: churches are overprotective, shallow, antagonistic toward science, judgmental about sexuality, too exclusive, and unfriendly toward doubters.
I'm generally skeptical of Chicken Little prognostications about the end of Christianity, but this article interested me because of the specific reasons it gave for why young people leave church. What intrigues me, though, is the question of whether these perceptions are generally accurate or whether they are simply perceptions. In other words, are churches truly this way, or do young adults just think they are this way? And if so, why do they think churches are so bad?
I'm curious to hear your thoughts. Did you leave church as a young adult? If so, why? Have you returned to church? Finally, do these problems exist in the churches you've attended?
In the past few weeks a number of students have asked me how I made the decision to pursue ministry as my full-time job. I recognize, of course, that every Christian is called to to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and to encourage fellow believers as they follow Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13). So in one sense, every Christian is called to full-time ministry.
Some, however, will pursue vocational ministry as pastors, missionaries, seminary professors, or para-church staff members. If you are considering that path, here are a few things to consider as you process that decision:
Will your gifts and abilities be most effective in the context of ministry? Throughout my life, I've often felt like I was "custom-designed" to be a pastor. It's not that I'm the best preacher or leader or exegete on the planet -- far from it, actually. Instead, I seemed to have a combination of moderate abilities that most naturally found their expression in the local church context. I did well in school (for the most part), but it was always at church where God seemed to make my work the most effective. My conversations with trusted friends and family often confirmed that.
If you are considering vocational ministry, ask the opinions of some honest people who have observed your ministry as a volunteer. Are you gifted as a leader? As a teacher? As a shepherd or pastor?
Is your greatest passion in life to equip the body of Christ to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13)? Every Christian ought to be committed to knowing and serving Jesus as the primary goal of his or her life. Some, though, are committed to helping other people do that job well. That means you want to develop leaders, train people to know the Bible, and encourage people to pursue holiness.
In general, it means that you want to spend all of your working time on that task. The thought of spending your days sharing the Gospel, mentoring young Christians, studying the Bible, and leading teams of volunteers excites you in a way that nothing else does. If you feel that way, vocational ministry might be the direction to pursue.
Are you comfortable with the unique lifestyle of a vocational minister? I frequently tell people that ministry is more of a lifestyle than a job, although it's a job as well. The main difference between my job and a job in the marketplace is that my identity and my career are often indistinguishable. When I go to the grocery store, I'm still "that college pastor from Grace." On the other hand, when my brother (who is a programmer) goes to the store, people don't usually say -- "Are you that guy who writes such awesome code?"
My spiritual life, personal life, and family life are integrally connected to my vocation. I can't be a pastor on Sunday morning and the angry man who shouts at the Starbucks barista on Monday. If that makes you uneasy, vocational ministry is probably not the best field for you to pursue.
Finally, do you feel a personal sense of calling? I don't want to minimize this. It's really a combination of the above considerations. As you pray, seek counsel, volunteer, and think about your future, do you have a strong sense that God is calling you into ministry? Do you feel that pursuing a different path would be "alright," but not necessarily God's best direction for your life? If so, then you are probably a candidate to consider vocational ministry.
Like most of my posts, this is not a comprehensive list, and I'd encourage you to pray and seek a lot of advice if you're considering ministry.
Do you have other comments or questions on this topic? I'd love to hear your input!
Congratulations to everybody who graduated this weekend! Finishing college is a major accomplishment -- you should definitely take a day or two to rest and celebrate. You've earned it.
After that, what comes next? Some of you have jobs lined up, some are still looking. Some are married or getting married, others are still solidly single. Some are moving into new homes, others are moving back in with Mom and Dad. Whatever situation you find yourself in, here are a few words of friendly advice as you move into the "real world":
Know your priorities. Decide now how you want to invest your life. If you want to spend your days knowing and proclaiming Christ, then arrange your life accordingly. Don't take a job that requires so many hours that you have no time left for things that matter. Don't marry a person who has radically different priorities than you do. And plan your schedule so that you can pray, read, serve, and proclaim the Gospel. If it means you have to go to bed at 9 PM in order to wake up at 5 AM and spend time with the Lord, then do it. Arrange your life according to your values.
Don't fall into the trap of simply seeking a comfortable life. Aim instead for significance, for a life that promotes the kingdom of God.
Quickly find a good church. Get some recommendations, visit a few, and commit to one within 2-3 months of moving to a new town. (See my previous post about how to find a church after college). Don't just attend on Sunday morning -- get involved in service and community so you can continue to grow.
Watch your money. That seemingly enormous salary will feel a great deal smaller within a few months. A major temptation will be to outspend your income in order to quickly increase your standard of living. The resulting debt can limit your life choices down the road and create considerable strain on you and your family. If you are single, live well below your means in order to give (to the church and to missions) and to save for your future. If you are married, and both of you work, try to live on just one income. This keeps your options open if one of you loses a job, or if one of you decides later to stay home with the kids.
Never stop learning. Your formal education might be over, but in a broader sense your education is just beginning. Do not allow yourself to stagnate -- keep learning about the Scripture. Read at least one or two books a month. Engage in discussions about important issues with friends and mentors. Men and women of influence and impact are those who keep learning.
This is obviously not a comprehensive list of principles, but just a few to start out.
Question: Any other advice you would give to a recent college graduate?
[Image via http://www.stcsig.org/canadian/courses.htm]